Phebe Hanson once called poetry “the most democratic of forms.” And on her tongue, it was.
Her poems were vibrant and often witty, never intimidating or stuffy. They felt like stories — tales of a Lutheran girl growing up on the Minnesota prairie. When she performed them aloud, as she loved to do, laughter warmed the room.
“Phebe was a Norwegian, Lutheran comedian of the first order — under the guise of being a poet,” said Garrison Keillor, who first met Hanson in the 1970s, a frothy moment in the history of Minnesota poetry. “She was a rare one.”
Hanson died Friday, at age 88, on the birthday of Jane Austen, a writer she loved.
Hanson will be remembered not only for her poetry, her friends and fellow writers said, but the way she welcomed people into the world of writing, inspiring them to start a journal and, perhaps, adding them to her long list of best friends.
“She believed everybody could write, everybody could participate,” said author Patricia Hampl, one of those best friends. “She combined this incredibly exquisite ear and sense of taste with a kind of openness.”
Hanson didn’t start writing poetry until she was in her mid-40s. By then, she had been journaling for more than 30 years.
Dated Jan. 1, 1939, her first journal entry began her detailed accounts of her life in Sacred Heart, Minn., a small town in western Minnesota. Her first collection of poems, “Sacred Hearts,” published in 1985, stole from these early writings, showing a child’s eye for detail. “In Sacred Heart, Minnesota,” the title poem begins, “we Lutherans barely knew the Catholic kids.”
Their mothers smoked Camels,
played bridge in the afternoons
instead of Ladies’ Aid.
Their fathers, lying under their Chevvies,
said, goddam, cursing the motors to life.
Her Norwegian father was a Lutheran minister, so Hanson’s childhood was filled with stoicism and ritual. When she was 8, her mother died. “That was, I think, the incontrovertible, core fact of her life,” as well as her poetry, said Hampl, a University of Minnesota professor.
In one poem, she writes about trying to forget that “my mother’s heart lies fading in a little bedroom beyond the rows of corn.”
After graduating from Augsburg College, Hanson began teaching, first in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie, then in Minneapolis high schools, later at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She and her then-husband raised three children and six foster children between work and pro-peace gatherings, said her son, Erik Riese.
In the 1970s, she helped build women-led poetry communities in the area.
A few days a week, she’d swing by Marly Rusoff’s bookstore in Dinkytown, a tiny place packed with skinny volumes of poetry and the writers who loved them: Robert Bly, Hampl, Keillor. Workshops in the store’s upstairs led to the creation of the Loft Literary Center, Rusoff said. Hanson was a founding member.
A lot of poets were floating around in those days, Rusoff said, but Hanson could be counted on to do the work. “Phebe was the one with me, cleaning up.” She was the one who, for a reading inspired by poet Emily Dickinson’s birthday, remembered to bring the cake, Rusoff said.
At her first meeting of the Women Poets of the Twin Cities, Hanson brought no poetry of her own. But friends encouraged her to bring her journal, and, at the next gathering, she read aloud from it.
“So at 45 years of age, after years of writing steadily in all those blank books,” she wrote at one point, “I dared to think of myself as a poet, dared to read my poems aloud, dared to submit them for print.”
A black-and-white video captures Hanson, her blonde hair in a thick bob, reading one of her pieces at a benefit for the Loft in 1975. Her clear voice picks up, then slows, for effect. She pauses, making room for the audience’s laughter.
“It was Phebe who would not only read her work — she would, with full force, deliver it to an audience,” Rusoff said. “I think that came from being the daughter of a preacher."
Keillor found it hard to read Hanson’s poems on “Prairie Home Companion,” he said Sunday, “because they don’t seem right coming from me. They are so much her voice and her. Her poems are just so linked to her.”
Alongside Keillor, Bill Holm and others, Hanson toured Minnesota in the 1970s with the Minnesota Poetry Out Loud series.
Though she won accolades and honors — a Bush Foundation fellowship among them — Hanson was “the least careerist poet I’ve ever met, maddeningly unconcerned with the usual notches on the holster,” as Hampl once put it.
“She was a person of much less pretense than the rest of us,” Keillor said. “Some of us were mostly pretense. She was always a preacher’s daughter from a small town, from Sacred Heart, who came to the big city.”
“Her work was brilliant, but she also empowered others,” Rusoff said. “Phebe provided warmth and support to people who wanted to be writers.”
Hanson’s second collection of poems came out in 2003 — 18 years after her first. In “Why Still Dance,” her personal stories again tell a larger history. One poem, titled “Crone,” ends with her resting on a sun-warmed stone, whose ridges remind her of her own wrinkles …
a thought I find strangely comforting. “Soon I’ll be a crone,”
I say to myself, “an elder with wrinkles and wisdom,
and when even my walking stick can no longer
support my old body, I’ll slide down the path, a gleeful
child again, crawl on the rocks like a baby new to the world,
toward the crashing waves and endless sky.”
Hanson’s work is “immediate — it’s not difficult poetry,” Hampl said. “But you do find yourself going back to it,” she continued, not because it’s tough to crack open, but “because the surface simplicity of it is carrying a great deal more.”
As she aged, and lost much of her eyesight, Hanson kept reading — on a slim Kindle with a soft light and big font — devouring several books a week. She kept in touch with her dozens of “best friends,” and, on Emily Dickinson’s birthday, Dec. 10, several of them came to visit.
Hanson was not able to sit up, Hampl said. But she recited, from memory, several of Dickinson’s poems.